Silicon Valhalla: Stockholm Stakes Its Claim on the Future

Artist talks from JR and Doug Aitken, Icona Pop, and rumors of 5G internet blew the doors off of the Brilliant Minds conference Day 1.

by Emerson Rosenthal
Jun 10 2016, 5:22pm

Icona Pop performs at Stockholm Symposium. Photo by Kristoffer Ruckemann

This is a story about a little country that could... do whatever it wanted, because it figured its shit out like a century ago. Anyone who's ever been to Sweden will tell you three things: It's clean, it's humble, and it's doing just fine on its own. That's not to glaze over its growing pains: I arrive as the guest of Stockholm Symposium just a day after Scandinavian Air pilots narrowly avoided a major strike; gang violence is present, though by no means outstanding; and M&Ms aren't allowed to use lowercase letters. By and large, the Nordic nation is far more geared toward solving the great problems of the future than exacerbating them.

Instead, the next two days are devoted to new ideas, new technologies, and the people bringing them to life. Like in Silicon Valley, these efforts take the form of startup summits, tech talks, and accelerationist conferences. But these are not the Randian, ego-tarian pursuits of Bay Area billionaires—it's about creating a better Stockholm, and ultimately a better world, for everybody.

Brilliant Minds, the Symposium’s flagship event, begins with a statement: “Stockholm has reached the future first.” I am, of course, skeptical, but as the first day of events and presentations kicks off, I have a hard time arguing with it. Universal healthcare, paternity leave, education, and 17 years of broadband internet notwithstanding, something like 25 percent of songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were made by Swedes; the gaming industry lays claim to Angry Birds, Mirror’s EdgeUncharted, and not to mention, *ahem* Minecraft.

The country is, by and large, more concerned with helping refugees than fearing them; part of this tech push predicates itself not on the projection, but the adaptive understanding that 50 percent of jobs will be robotized within the next 20 years. Instead of fighting the future, Stockholm is creating it.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales discusses Sweden's impact on the site. Photo by Kristoffer Ruckemann

It is, perhaps, no more evident than at the Symposium: a joint venture between Spotify founder Daniel Ek and Avicii manager Ash Pournouri. The second year of forward-thinking festivities boasts a stacked lineup geared towards getting the country to, well, start boasting.

At the opening press conference, Stockholm Symposium CEO Natalia Brzezinski, also the Brilliant Minds’ moderator, says she hopes the Nordic tech boom is the “cure” to Swedish humility. It’s a matter of positioning: Symposium banners bear the words “the Creative Capital of the World,” but, if last month’s summit between President Obama and Nordic leaders is any indication, the world has taken notice.

As the day’s events progress, artist JR explains how one of his floating artworks incidentally rescued 213 refugees; Spotify declares it won’t sell; Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt crushes Elon Musk’s “evil AI” fantasies. Performances by up-and-coming artists Janice, Mavrick, and The Royal Concept make the case for Sweden’s pop music supremacy; a discussion with RAC, and a performance by Icona Pop  solidifies it. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales explains how Swedish is the #2 language on Wikipedia. Artists Doug Aitken and Jordan Wolfson discuss art’s intrinsic humanity with Moderna Museet’s Daniel Birnbaum, Harper’s Bazaar’s Laura Brown, and Cahiers d’Art’s Staffan Ahrenberg. Charity Water founder Scott Harrison provides VR headsets allowing attendees to “visit” an Ethiopian community that previously lacked clean water infrastructure, and an anonymous donor contributed $100 for every person who tries them on.

Though the Symposium’s steep price tag might sound prohibitive (tickets for last year’s event ran upwards of $2,900), the whole point is that the money directly goes back into building a better Stockholm and, ultimately, a better world.

Today, I’m headed to ruminations on the future of sex with’s Chloe Macintosh and VICE's own filmmaker Vikram Gandhi; a studio visit with post-photography artist Jacob Felländer; a discussion on “hard truths” between Peek CEO Ruzwana Bashir and Ronan Farrow; a talk on artists as startups with Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda; Quincy Jones and Quincy Jones III in conversation; and a debut performance by liv, a supergroup comprising Andrew Wyatt, Lykke Li, Björn Yttling, Pontus Winnberg, and Jeff Baskert.

Basically what I’m saying is, though the sun may be setting for parts of the West, it’s bright 18 hours out of the day here.

French artist JR on the Stockholm Symposium stage. Photo by Kristoffer Ruckemann

Click here to learn more about Stockholm Symposium.


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